News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

October 19, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Valley-born filmmaker influenced by roots

TERRE HAUTE — Real-life stories inspire Laura Brownson.

Even those vastly unlike her own.

A few years ago, Brownson — a filmmaker, wife and mother — sat in a New York City theater, watching a beat poet named Lemon Andersen on the stage, sharing the struggles of his life.

The seeds of Brownson’s new documentary, “Lemon,” which airs on WTIU tonight at 10 o’clock, were sown.

“I was incredibly moved by the fact that he could communicate to me a very different life than mine,” Brownson said Thursday by telephone from Los Angeles, where she, her husband and their two sons live. Brownson directed and produced “Lemon” with film partner Beth Levison, spending 31⁄2 years on the project. It depicts the plight of men during the era of the crack-cocaine and AIDS epidemics in urban America. AIDS claimed the lives of Andersen’s Puerto Rican mother and Norwegian-American father, leaving him to survive as an orphan at just 14 years old. He did stints in jail, before turning to poetry — an art form that landed him an improbable gig on Broadway, where he won a Tony Award.

The fame and money disappeared when the show ended, though, and he wound up back in the projects. Trying to support his wife and two daughters, Andersen was determined to revive his career and escape the lingering hardship.

That is where Brownson, Levison and their film team picked up the story.

Brownson and Andersen “don’t come from even remotely similar backgrounds,” she explained. “He grew up in the streets of New York, in Brooklyn, and I grew up — at least part of the time — in Terre Haute, Indiana.”

Her parents, Bill and Joan Brownson, moved to Terre Haute when Laura was a small child. Bill taught philosophy of education as an Indiana State University professor, and the Brownsons lived on South 21st Street. Laura attended Davis Park Elementary School, loved visiting Deming Park, and developed a fondness for the town, even after the family moved to northern California when she was 8 years old. “I have a real soft spot for Terre Haute,” she said.

Brownson studied journalism and political science at Cal-Berkeley, and worked briefly in radio and television news, but realized she’d likely have to move from California to begin such a career. Instead, she chose filmmaking as a vocational outlet for her storytelling. She lived in New York for a decade, before returning to L.A. Now 43, Brownson’s résumé includes work on projects with Sean Penn, Michael Douglas and other notables, as well as works that have appeared on CBS, Showtime, HBO and Lifetime. Along with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Richard Friedenberg, she is currently developing a film called “Brother of the Pilot.”

Documentaries and narrative films, though, remain her passion.

“I was always drawn to true stories,” she said, “and it wasn’t until I made a documentary that I found my niche in the film industry.”

She instantly was drawn to Andersen’s saga. After seeing his New York performance, Brownson explored the details of his life when she and Levison sat down and talked with Andersen.

“For me, ‘Lemon’ was just a way for me to shine a little bit of light on that problem” experienced by men in urban America, Brownson said.

In the years since, as they’ve periodically revisited his situation, she and the poet have become friends. His determination to lift his young family out of poverty impressed Brownson. “Really, everything he does is trying to bring a better life to his daughters,” she said.

Her own father-daughter bond is deep and special, too. Bill Brownson passed away during the filming of “Lemon.” Laura dedicated the film to her dad.

“He was just a true intellectual, who had true ideas, which really affected me as a documentary filmmaker,” she said.

Without spoiling the conclusion of “Lemon,” Brownson happily reports that Andersen “really has turned the corner artistically, professionally and personally.” As for Brownson, she has a couple of projects planned, including another documentary.

She enjoys the challenge of topics, regardless of the difficulties, in which “I can’t change the facts.” Real people, real stories motivate Laura Brownson.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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